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March 2018

In 2009, I went the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley to see if I could get unstuck with the novel I was writing. What a gift it was to meet Jennifer Haupt there! She was on her own quest, and we bonded right away over our love of literature, our broken spirits, and our struggle to create a story from traumatic material.

In the Shadow of 10,000 Hills , her profoundly moving novel, out this month, takes readers on a journey that spans from the turmoil of Civil Rights Era Atlanta to an orphanage in Rwanda born of unspeakable tragedy. In this hopeful story that transcends race and cultural differences, Jennifer Haupt guides both the survivors and readers toward the courage to believe in love again. An important story reminding us that when a crime is unforgivable, only grace will do.

I asked Jen if she’d write a letter to you because she is full of wisdom and heart. I had no idea she was going to give you something so beautiful as this. Enjoy!

Chair in woods_fun-cropped-v2

Dearest You,

Every author dreads hearing these words from their agent or editor or mean little voice in their head: “Well, that’s the end of the road. Time to put this novel to rest and start writing something new.”

I heard these words from my then-agent, seven years ago after the novel I had been working on for three years was rejected by, as I recall in my memory warped by time, every editor in the universe and their mother. I cried every day for at least a month, my soul ached for much longer. I was ashamed. I was embarrassed. I was grieving.

(Spoiler alert!) Thankfully, there’s a happy ending to this story: That novel became In the Shadow of 10,000 Hills, which was finally — finally!! — published this week after 11 years of work.

Elliott Bay

No wait, I just lied. Yes, it’s been 11 years since I first started writing this book but I did put it aside several times. That first time was not my choice, and it was extremely painful. The second time, the time I really want to tell you about, was my choice. I want to spare you some of the pain, self-doubt and humiliation I heaped on myself that first time, before I found my footing on a new path (and a new agent!) because these are the tools that resistance uses to keep us all from writing.

I want you to write and be happy. That’s why I’m sharing some strategies I gleaned over the past 11 years for how to stop writing — at least for a little while. Here are six tips for putting your WIP aside, without declaring it RIP:

Tip #1: Buy yellow tissue paper and gold stars.

This is a variation of advice I received from our very own Susan Henderson when we met at the Squaw Valley Writers Conference, a month after my agent told me to bury my novel. I shared my secret shame with this lovely woman, and she told me her debut novel recently sold after years of turmoil. She told me she had to fight for her novel, including sending it to editors wrapped in colored tissue paper, scattered with gold stars. (This may not be exactly correct but it’s how I remember it.) Susan, along with other writers I met that week who had their own stories of perseverance, inspired me not to give up.

I went home with a renewed commitment to deepening my characters and their plot lines. Long-story-short: After another three years, I sent my novel to three agents. One took me on as a client and sent my novel to a handful of editors.  All of them had nice things to say, but none offered a publishing contract.

This time, it was my choice to put aside my novel, and I did it with love. I printed out my manuscript, wrapped it in yellow tissue paper (because sunflowers were my spirit flower for this novel), and lovingly placed it in a drawer of my desk. (Not the bottom drawer, that seemed a little cliché.) I didn’t know exactly when I’d unwrap those pages again, but I knew I would not forget it was there. You may actually buy whatever color tissue paper speaks to you and your WIP!

Tip #2: Don’t forget about your WIP — even while it’s in the drawer.

You’re probably wondering about those gold stars from tip one. Here’s what I did with mine: I put them in a sea-green glass jar, along with a note that said, simply: Don’t Give Up. I kept that jar on my fiction alter, a small table next to the chair I like to sit in (and nap in) while working on a novel.

I didn’t want to give up, to lose the characters and world I had spent six years lovingly creating even though my novel was still flawed and I had no idea how to fix it. This helped ward off the grief I had experienced when I hit the end of the road three years earlier; I knew my WIP was still alive and well. We just needed some time apart.

Tip #3: Start a new, totally unrelated, creative project.

Remember this: it’s not cheating on your WIP to write that essay you’ve been mulling over, taking painting lessons, weed the front garden and plant spring flowers… all of the things you haven’t had time for because, let’s face it, WIPs can be high-maintenance and jealous of the time you spend away from them.

The thing I learned, while my WIP was slumbering in yellow tissue paper and stars is that waking up other passions, broadening my creativity, was actually good for my WIP! I spent a few months cooking, gardening, taking longer walks in the woods, reading — lots of reading! — and when I re-entered novel-land I had more to bring to the pages.

Tip #4: Practice self-compassion.

This tip is closely related to the last one. Do what you love, and the story will follow. (I give no guarantees about the money!)

In retrospect, I was so very mean to myself the first time I put aside my WIP. It’s impossible to be compassionate with your characters, or real folks for that matter, when you aren’t practicing self-compassion. So, don’t beat yourself up for taking a break from your WIP — sometimes, that’s the best thing you can do for yourself and your book.

Tip #5: Don’t stop working on craft.

Sorry, but I’m afraid you aren’t going to become a better writer without, well, actually writing. The good news is that putting aside your WIP leaves more time for studying the work of authors you admire. I’ve taken a lot of workshops over the past  11 years, and I truly believe the most effective way I’ve upped my skills is studying the books I love reading. I underline passages I wish I had written, and then I copy them into a notebook and rewrite them using my own words. Most of these passages make it into whatever WIP I’m working on.

I actually kept my first novel wrapped in yellow tissue paper for two years and wrote a completely new novel, instead of carving up my poor first novel yet another time. I set 50 pages at a time to a consulting editor who worked part-time at a major publishing house, had launched a successful literary magazine, and was the author of a bestselling novel. I also took workshops at Hugo House in Seattle, I read a lot (again)… I invested in what I wanted to be my career.

Tip #6: Set a begin-again date.

One thing that keeps writers from putting aside their beloved WIP is the fear that it will, in fact, wind up being the end of the road — and with good reason! Setting a begin-again date, even if it seems arbitrary, helps to soothe that worry. Although, the truth is, your gut will tell you when you’re ready to re-enter novel-land.

My gut told me, after I spent two years writing my second novel, that the book I really wanted to be my debut was wrapped in yellow tissue paper. I felt absolutely no sense of failure wrapping novel #2 in lavender tissue paper. My begin-again date was one year. I knew it would take me that long to not just revise, but restructure my first novel. (Restructuring… that’s another story for another time!)

So there you have it, permission to set aside your WIP. I’m quite certain that’s a huge relief for some of you! For others, I hope it’s a safety net. When you begin to feel your book is a burden instead of a joy, give yourself permission to set it aside — without burying it for good.

Love,

Jen

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Jennifer Haupt went to Rwanda as a journalist in 2006, twelve years after the genocide that wiped out over one million people, to explore the connections between forgiveness and grief. She spent a month interviewing survivors and humanitarian aid workers, and returned to Seattle with something unexpected: the bones of a novel. Haupt’s essays and articles have been published in O, The Oprah MagazineThe RumpusSpirituality & HealthPsychology TodayTravel & LeisureThe Sun and many other publications. In the Shadow of 10,000 Hills is her first novel.

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Marisa de los Santos – It’s a big world, honey.

by Susan Henderson on March 6, 2018

I’m so excited to introduce you to Marisa de los Santos—a mom, a dog lover, and author of I’ll Be Your Blue Sky… out today!

My copy of the book is dog-eared to death with lines I loved. And Library Journal says this about it: “De los Santos…here revisits the next generation of her beloved characters, moving the family saga forward with this engrossing story of unshakable love, personal ethics, and a commitment to life’s larger truths.” I don’t know how to tell you what it’s about without giving away the book’s best secrets and surprises. But I will say this… it’s both a BIG book and an intimate one, and someone’s going to snatch up movie rights for it, I’m certain.

So here’s Marisa, who has written a letter to those of you who feel discouraged and need a lift.

marisadelossantoslitpark

Dear You,

Here are some things people have said about my books:

            “I thought this was going to be a romance, but there’s so much other stuff going on that I lost interest.”

            “This book was way too wordy, too many big words and long sentences.”

            “Annoying and pretentious. If I wanted poetry, I’d read poetry.”

            “If you want a light, fun read, this is not the book for you.”

            “You need a PhD in English to appreciate this.”

            “Too long, too deep, too slow.”

            “I like books that just tell the story without all the fancy language.”

And here are some things that other people have said about my books:

            “I don’t usually read fluffy books like yours, but my friend gave me your book for my birthday, and I thought, hey, why not.”

            “I usually go for more literary books, but I needed something light and fun for the beach.”

            “Ugh. Saccharine.”

            “Maybe one day, this writer will put her considerable talents toward a book that is actually worthy of them.”

            “Someone needs to tell Marisa de los Santos that nice characters are boring.”

Every single one of these remarks—the ones that were said to my face and the ones that I read in reviews or blog posts, even the ones that I’m pretty sure were meant as compliments—hit its mark, left its bruise.

Not because these remarks outweigh the positive ones. They don’t, not in number and not in my own estimation of them. I never stop being astonished by the kindness of my readers, by their generosity in telling me what my books have meant to them, exactly why and how they love them.

Not because the comments I listed are especially mean-spirited. They aren’t. I’ve had much crueler dismissals of my work hurled at me full-force, and I’ve easily dodged them and walked away.

And not even because I am particularly thin-skinned. When my kids have come to me upset because someone was mean to them, I have never (okay, almost never) tried to explain this meanness away by saying, “She’s just jealous,” or “He’s just insecure.” Instead, I tell them, “It’s a big world, honey. Not everyone is going to like you.” While these words might not be especially comforting, I believe them; I apply them to myself. It’s a big world. Not everyone is going to like your books. Get over it. And mostly I do get over it.

No, these criticisms hurt because, in my lowest moments, I am afraid they might be true, all of them. All of them? But they contradict one another! How can a book be fluffy and deep? Lightweight and requiring an advanced degree to be appreciated? These comments cancel each other out, don’t they? They can’t possibly all be accurate, so why not forget about them? But it’s precisely the contradictory nature of them that stings because it gets right to the heart of my own identity crisis as a writer.

My main goal is to make readers happy. No, my main goal is to make readers think. I don’t care about the New York Times “Book Review.” I read that sucker cover to cover every Sunday. I want to charm and make people laugh. I want to give people raw insights into pain and loss. I don’t care that I will never win a Pulitzer or a National Book Award. Of course, I want to win a Pulitzer and a National Book Award!

Truly, if I were to think too long about these tricky, confusing matters of career and identity and purpose and worth, I might just stop writing altogether.

Look, rejection hurts. You know that. I know that. I am not talking about thoughtful criticism from those who have faith in you and your writing. That can be a gift. It can make you better. But casual—or not so casual—dismissals of the work you spend your time and heart on? They don’t help. At their worst, they can paralyze you or send you reeling, wrecked by self-doubt, away from all that writing you need to do.

You can’t let that happen. You cannot. I forbid it.

Here is what I do when I find myself near that calamitous edge (and there is no uncorny way to say this): I remind myself of why I write.

Do it. Remind yourself. Mine your memory, clear away the clutter of ambition, competition, injured feelings, rejection, do whatever it takes to find the reason you write, the reason you started in the first place. And when you find it, walk straight into it the way you’d walk into that house you remember from your childhood, the one you’ve measured every place you’ve ever lived since against, the touchstone house. Home.

See what you find there.

What I find is a woman sitting in the center of a group of characters and making sentences. Choosing. Listening. Lifting one word, then another, arranging them, rearranging them. Being in love with cooing vowels and L-sounds and consonants purring or sharp as flint. Apart from this music she makes, the woman isn’t listening to anyone but her characters, as they teach her how to tell a story that no one else—not a single other person who has ever walked on the planet or won a Pulitzer—can tell.

It’s a big world, honey. Not everyone is going to like you. Get over it. And then go home.

Go home and write your book.

Love,

Marisa

marisadelossantosbooklitpark

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Bio:

I became a writer because I love the sound and texture of words (current favorite consonant sounds: Ls and hard Cs) and love to hear what happens when they bump up against each other. I was a poet for a long time (my first book is a collection of poetry called FROM THE BONES OUT), and then, one day, unexpectedly, I found that I had a voice inside my head. As you might imagine, this was a bit alarming. However, in time, I discovered that the voice belonged to a character named Cornelia Brown, so I wrote a novel called LOVE WALKED IN about her and an eleven-year old girl named Clare. After that, I became addicted to writing novels. I wrote a second one called BELONG TO ME that continues Cornelia’s and Clare’s stories, and then wrote a another book for adults called THE PRECIOUS ONE, about two sisters, and co-wrote two for middle grade readers with my husband, David Teague. Those are called SAVING LUCAS BIGGS and CONNECT THE STARS. My new novel I’LL BE YOUR BLUE SKY completes the Cornelia and Clare trilogy (if it doesn’t turn into a series because–who knows?), and I’m working on another one, probably titled I’D GIVE ANYTHING. I live with David Teague, our two kids, Charles and Annabel, and our ridiculously cute Yorkies, Finny and Huxley, in lovely Wilmington, Delaware, home of Joe Biden and tax-free shopping.

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